Thursday, November 29, 2007

Evidence Mounts Against Blackwater in Nisour Square Shootings

The Blackwater shootings in Nisour Square highlight at least two problems that Americans must grapple with. First, some American security contractors in Iraq appear to lack the sound judgment and restraint required to carry out their mission (see the Blackwater shootings, the DynCorp Int'l shootings and the Unity Resources Group shootings). Second, these contractors have operated for years without sufficient scrutiny or legal consequences to their actions.

The Blackwater security contractors involved in the incident have claimed they retaliated after being fired upon, which resulted in the deaths of 17 Iraqis. The evidence against Blackwater has slowly mounted since this initial claim. In a recent NPR report, Philadelphia attorney Susan Burke said, "We have not found anyone, anyone at all, who has come forward to say there were any shots fired or any kind of threat made upon these Blackwater shooters". In addition, Iraqi civilians have filed civil lawsuits accusing Blackwater guards of disobeying orders by going to Nisour Square instead of staying with the State Department official they were supposed to be guarding, and accusing them of taking steroids.

Equally disturbing is the fact that no law has been found--U.S., military or Iraqi--that holds these contractors accountable for their actions. The following is from a November 28 NPR report:

"The more immediate challenge for Justice Department officials and prosecutors has been to find an American law that applies to the parameters of this incident.

Bob Chadwell, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle, says prosecuting the Blackwater guards isn't a slam dunk.

'They are going to have to shoehorn the facts into a statute that wasn't designed to address that concern, and that is a problem," he said, referring to Justice Department lawyers. "If the law isn't meant to address something, it is sometimes like trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. Sometimes it just can't be done.'

...A federal grand jury is hearing from witnesses this week, and the Justice Department has said it could be months before it seeks an actual indictment.
Any and all Americans abroad represent their country at all times, whether a diplomat, a businessman or woman, a backpacker or a security contractor. We must determine whether or not the actions of American security guards in Iraq have been excessive or irresponsible, and there must be legal recourse to address those actions. Doing so will show Iraq and the rest of the world that the U.S. is strongly dedicated to the legal system and that no one is above the law.

Photo: Nisour Sqaure; Khalid Mohammed for the New York Times

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Are Conditions Safe Enough for Iraqi Refugees to Return Home?

Some Iraqi refugees are returning to their homes in Iraq, according to Iraqi government officials and the UNHCR. Iraqi officials are quick to cite improved security as the reason that refugees are returning. Damien Cave of the New York Times reports:

"On Nov. 7, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the Iraqi spokesman for the American-Iraqi effort to pacify Baghdad, said that 46,030 people returned to Iraq from abroad in October because of the 'improving security situation.'"
However, the UNHCR reports other factors as playing a much more significant role in determining whether refugees return. On November 23 at a Geneva press conference, Jennifer Pagoni said:

"According to a survey done by our staff in Syria, there are many reasons for returns to Iraq other than considerations of improved security. Of some 110 Iraqi families UNHCR spoke with in Syria the majority said they are returning because they are running out of money and/or resources, face difficult living conditions, or because their visas have expired."
The primary concern here is the safety of Iraqis. Refugees should not have to return to a conflict zone under any circumstances, whether forced by host communities or governments (refoulement) or, in this case, because of a lack of resources, jobs and services available to them.

"We welcome improvements to the security conditions and stand ready to assist people who have decided or will decide to return voluntarily. However, UNHCR does not believe that the time has come to promote, organize or encourage returns. That would be possible only when proper return conditions are in place – including material and legal support and physical safety."
Photo Caption: Iraqi refugees in the Damascus district of Sayyida Zainab, a hub for Iraq refugees; J. Wreford for the UNHCR

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Is the Surge Working?

Women walk through Baghdad's Zawra Park. Joao Silva for The New York TimesIn the media, that question is being asked a lot these days, and for those of you planning to break bread with extended family this week, it will likely be among the topics of conversation.

So how can I resist but to throw in my two cents. Consider this post a Ground Truth Guide to one of the most political questions of our day.

First, let's recognize the question for what it is: a partisan test of loyalties. Answer "no" and you must be marching with those antiwar Democrats. Answer "yes" and you're a "pro-war Bush supporter."

Second, the question invites the answerer to snub either (1) the courageous efforts of 175,000 U.S. servicemen and women who are risking their lives in Iraq right now, while we're all enjoying our Tofurkies, OR (2) the legitimate concerns of millions of Americans, Iraqis, and people around the globe -- civilian and military -- who recognize the limits of what a foreign military can achieve in Iraq.

Third, it's the wrong question asked by the wrong people at the wrong time. For starters, it frames Iraq as an all-American domestic political problem with only one possible solution. The Problem: What to do about this thing called I-rak? Solution: send more of our G.I.s! Problem: Darfur? Solution: Send in our boys. Problem: global warming? Solution: da boyz!

Are you seeing the problem? Ending conflict and suffering in Iraq presents a military, diplomatic, humanitarian, economic, and -- most importantly -- peacebuilding challenge. Is the surge working? That question is not about addressing the world's largest population movement and humanitarian crisis today. The UNHCR estimates 4.5 million people have been displaced. Nor is it about the country's 30-50% unemployment rate, which most experts point to as a major contributing factor of Iraq's instability. Reducing all of America's policy options to an either-or question that suggests only military solutions (surge vs. withdrawal) is just plain silly talk. Most Americans are already wising up to that, but it seems our politicians are a little slower.

Now that we have liberated ourselves from that ridiculous question and the obsession of small-minded media outlets to put all of us into neat little ticky tack boxes, it's time to consider what's really happening on-the-ground in Iraq.

Without question, there has been a remarkable improvement in security. Here's an excerpt from today's report by New York Times Baghdad correspondents Damien Cave and Alissa Rubin:
The security improvements in most neighborhoods are real. Days now pass without a car bomb, after a high of 44 in the city in February. The number of bodies appearing on Baghdad’s streets has plummeted to about 5 a day, from as many as 35 eight months ago, and suicide bombings across Iraq fell to 16 in October, half the number of last summer and down sharply from a recent peak of 59 in March, the American military says.

As a result, for the first time in nearly two years, people are moving with freedom around much of this city. In more than 50 interviews across Baghdad, it became clear that while there were still no-go zones, more Iraqis now drive between Sunni and Shiite areas for work, shopping or school, a few even after dark. In the most stable neighborhoods of Baghdad, some secular women are also dressing as they wish. Wedding bands are playing in public again, and at a handful of once shuttered liquor stores customers now line up outside in a collective rebuke to religious vigilantes from the Shiite Mahdi Army. [more]
And on NPR's Morning Edition, Jamie Tarabay reports: "Nine months after the start of the U.S. troop surge in Baghdad, signs of life are slowly returning to some neighborhoods of the Iraqi capital. In the Sunni enclave of Amriya on the west side of the city, shops are reopening, and the economy is picking up."

Iraqi bloggers, military bloggers, and a U.S. Army surgeon in West Baghdad who I've been talking with by phone confirm these recently reported trends.

But don't blame it all on the surge. There are other important factors contributing to these recent improvements. For example, there's the popular backlash against the terror campaign of al-Qaeda (ALQ) and other extremists and the formation of anti-ALQ coalitions among tribal leaders. Those trends began in 2006 and gathered momentum in early 2007. Here's what I wrote about the trend last May:
The tribal leaders formed the Anbar Salvation Council in fall 2006 to fight al-Qa'ida. Also called the Anbar Awakening, the coalition began with dozens of tribes and now boasts more than 40 tribes or sub-tribes from Anbar. The Sunni Arab leader of the movement, Sheik Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi, lost his father and three brothers to al-Qaida assassins. AP quotes al-Rishawi as saying insurgents were "killing innocent people, anyone suspected of opposing them. They brought us nothing but destruction and we finally said, enough is enough."

Early this year, as the council gained new tribal members and strength, cooperation with U.S. forces began to improve especially in and around Ramadi, Anbar's provincial council. Last month I talked with a Marine fellow in Senator Reed's office who served in Ramadi two years ago. He stays in touch with fellow Marines, including men serving there right now who confirm a remarkable turnaround in Ramadi.
Other related trends include: the organizing of neighborhood militias, the spread of local cease-fires, the growing capabilities of some of Iraq's security forces and commanders, and the shift to a counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes protecting and securing the local population. In addition, Gen. Petreaus and other commanders have focused on building alliances at the local level with anyone who can help restore order.

The real question is less about whether or not we're seeing improvements in security. We are, and that's good news. But can these recent improvements be sustained? And will the downward trend in violence continue? After all, Iraq's rate of conflict-related deaths remains among the highest in the world.

Our friend Abu Aardvark and other experts are not so sure. They caution that, despite recent improvements in security, current military tactics carry the risk of moving Iraq "towards a warlord state, along a Basra model, with power devolved to local militias, gangs, tribes, and power-brokers, with a purely nominal central state."

Abu Aardvark's caution, if not pessimism, got strong military back-up in last Thursday's Washington Post. In his front page article "Iraqis Wasting an Opportunity, U.S. Officers Say", Tom Ricks writes:
Senior military commanders here now portray the intransigence of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government as the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq, rather than al-Qaeda terrorists, Sunni insurgents or Iranian-backed militias.

In more than a dozen interviews, U.S. military officials expressed growing concern over the Iraqi government's failure to capitalize on sharp declines in attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. A window of opportunity has opened for the government to reach out to its former foes, said Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq, but "it's unclear how long that window is going to be open."

...all the U.S. military officials interviewed said their most pressing concern is that Sunnis will sour if the Iraqi government doesn't begin to reciprocate their peace overtures. "The Sunnis have shown great patience," said Campbell. "You don't want the Sunnis that are working with you . . . to go back to the dark side."

The Army officer who requested anonymity said that if the Iraqi government doesn't reach out, then for former Sunni insurgents "it's game on -- they're back to attacking again."

The year-long progress in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq could carry a downside. Maj. Mark Brady, who works on reconciliation issues, noted that a Sunni leader told him: "As soon as we finish with al-Qaeda, we start with the Shiite extremists." Talk like that is sharply discouraged, Brady noted as he walked across the dusty ground of Camp Liberty, on the western fringes of Baghdad. [more]
In short, despite improvements in security, the challenge of building an enduring peace remains.

So that's the Ground Truth Guide to the BIG political question of this year's Thanksgiving. I'll leave it to our readers and future blogs to generate some more intelligent questions that the media ought to be asking and elected officials and candidates ought to be answering.

Photo caption: Women walk through Baghdad's Zawra Park. Joao Silva for The New York Times.

Blogger alert: Abu Aardvark recently hosted an interesting mano y mano debate between Georgetown scholar Colin Kahl and Center for American Progress policy analyst Brian Katulis.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Solid Figures on Jordan

Earlier this year, Jordan commissioned the Fafo Institute to help determine the population of Iraqi refugees in the Hashemite kingdom. Rumors hit Washington this summer that the numbers they were coming up with were far lower than those Jordan had long quoted. Now the report is finally out and the numbers are indeed lower, but not drastically so.

Fafo and the Jordan Ministry of Statistics say there were "between 450,000-500,000 Iraqi residents in Jordan as of May 2007", whereas Jordan had previously maintained that there were about 750,000 Iraqis.

Whether the number is 450,000 or 750,000, it's staggering. With Jordan's estimated population of just under 6 million, it means that either 1 in 9 people in Jordan is a refugee from Iraq or 1 in 14. Either way, it represents a huge burden on Jordan's infrastructure and economy. Imagine comparable numbers here in the U.S. of between 23 to 38 million refugees!

In short, Jordan needs the help of the international community to meet the needs of so many refugees. Food and water security, job opportunities, and access to health care are severely lacking and must be addressed now. Women, children and the elderly are particularly at risk because in many cases their fathers and brothers were killed in Iraq, forcing their families to flee in the first place. Women and young girls are often forced into survival sex and prostitution to support their families. See a new report from the Women's Commission on the state of health care for Iraqi women in Jordan here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Progress on the Syrian Front

The New York Times recently reported that Syria will allow U.S. officials from the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to visit Damascus in order to screen and process Iraqis who have taken refuge in the Syrian capital.

Prior to the visit to Syria that brought on this new agreement, only the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was allowed into Syria to process Iraqi refugees. UNHCR could then refer refugees to the U.S. for resettling, but many of these refugees were unable to reach State Department or DHS offices outside of Syria due to a severe lack of funds.
“This is obviously very good news,” said Jacob Kurtzer, a Congressional advocate for Refugees International. “We’re very happy, but it really does draw attention to the need for a continuous high-level diplomatic presence in Syria and the rest of the region.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Jacob here. Lori Scialabba, who was appointed Associate Director of Refugee, Asylum and International Operations for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services just over a year ago, and James Foley, a career diplomat, deserve praise for speaking directly with Syria. We should also praise Syria, the UNHCR and UNICEF for accommodating 100,000 Iraqi schoolchildren in Syrian schools, a three-fold increase from last year's 33,000.

These developments are small victories for all of us, most importantly for the refugees themselves. But we need to keep an eye on the numbers and stay on top of the administration on this issue. There are 150,000 Iraqi schoolchildren in Syria who still need the education every child deserves. And bear in mind that in October, the first month of fiscal year 2008, the U.S. resettled just over 450 Iraqi refugees out of an expected 12,000 for the fiscal year. Already we're behind on our projections, but continuous pressure on Congress and the administration will get us the results we want.

Caption: Iraqi school children in a cramped basement in the Damascus district of Sayyida Zainab, a hub for Iraq refugees; M. Bernard for the UNHCR

Monday, November 12, 2007

Honoring Our Veterans

In recognition of our veterans, the Washington Post ran an opinion piece by William Quinn, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006. Quinn writes about his return to civilian life after the intensity of serving in a war zone.
The only feeling I've ever had that was more surreal than arriving in a war zone was returning from one.

I came home on R&R in 2005 after eight months in Iraq. Heading for the baggage claim in Detroit, I watched travelers walking and talking on their cellphones, chatting with friends and acting just the way people had before I'd left for Baghdad. The war didn't just seem to be taking place in another country; it seemed to be taking place in another universe. There I was, in desert camouflage, wondering how all the intensity, the violence, the tears and the killing of Iraq could really be happening at the same time that all these people were hurrying to catch their flights to Las Vegas or Los Angeles or wherever.
Now as a student majoring in international politics and security studies at Georgetown, Quinn feels the same disconnect with the war among his peers on campus.
I find it frustrating that Facebook is a bigger part of most students' lives than the war. After my first semester, I decided to rejoin the Army by signing up with the ROTC. I felt a bit guilty for having done only one tour in Iraq while friends of mine have done two or three. And I didn't want to forget the war. I may be prejudiced, but many of my college peers seem self-absorbed. I didn't want to end up like that.

...Nonetheless, the Army's values are important to soldiers. They may not always live up to them, but they do when it matters most. Soldiers are selfless; they are courageous; they are loyal. The most interesting intellectual conversations I've had have been with others in the military. They discuss things not to impress you but because they're trying to figure them out. They're faced with difficult situations, and they want to make sense of them. Though many privately question our government's policies, they do their duty, which lies beyond the political debate.

This culture of duty is at odds with the culture of individualism and self-promotion that seems paramount here in college.
As one of those students, I have to admit that at first I felt a little defensive about William's op-ed. But as these thoughts sank in I began to accept them as accurate. Indeed, the college life is a far cry from military service, and our responsibilities are different. College is a duty to one's self, whereas the military is a duty to one's country. Serving in this country's armed forces requires a selflessness that others probably don't understand. Today, we honor their courage and their call to duty.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Safe, But Feeling Isolated

In a recent entry, "Success Stories and the Road Ahead", I commended Congress for beginning to address the Iraqi refugee crisis. I also argued, because many Iraqi refugees are terribly short on money and often must spend their life savings just to make it to the United States, that the U.S. must go a step further by accomodating such refugees when they do finally arrive.

When an individual is resettled in the United States via standard protocol, they are given refugee status. They are put in contact with a social service agency that provides them with food stamps and three months’ rent. Alternately, when someone enters the U.S. with a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), they are not afforded refugee status and therefore do not receive what few benefits a social service agency provides.

In fiscal year 07, 820 Iraqis entered the United States with SIV’s. That means over half of the 1,608 Iraqis who came into the U.S. last year are not receiving the benefits afforded with refugee status.

The Washington Post ran an article today on the discomfort, isolation and utter lack of resources Iraqis face when they arrive in the States. Most of the refugees interviewed were resettled via standard procedures. But three months' rent does little in the way of financial help and does nothing in the way of adjusting Iraqis to American culture.

Hakee Ismael was helping U.S. troops in Baghdad when they were ambushed. The attack left him blind. He came to the States with his wife, Zainab, and their three-year-old son, Sodiq. Nadhum Ali al-Hasnawi was a Shiite upholsterer in the predominantly Sunni city of Taji, north of Baghdad. It wasn't long before a death threat came to his family's home in the form of a hail of gunfire. These Iraqis are part of a small group of 38 who were resettled in the Tucson area. They have each other for company and support, but little else.

Iraqis are often left traumatized by their conflict at home, and here in the U.S. they feel disoriented and alone. According to the Washington Post, the social service agencies designated to help refugees are often unable to do so. The U.S. must act responsibly by taking care of the most vulnerable Iraqis not only by resettling them in the United States, but also by appropriating funds to help them through the adjustment period. Sen. Cardin (D-MD) has introduced legislation (currently a provision in the Labor-HHS appropriations bill) that would provide Iraqis who come to the U.S. with SIV's the same benefits that come with refugee status. It's a start, and we must see it through.

At this point, the U.S. is doing only what I've described above, but there are some Americans who are stepping up where the administration is falling short. I've previously written about American servicemen and women helping Iraqis who helped us. Erin Simpson and Christy Voelkel are two Tucson residents who organized a community collection effort to help locally resettled Iraqis. They have raised money with their community and have personally delivered kitchen equipment, clothes, pillows and children's toys to Iraqis.

We can show our true colors as Americans by stepping up and taking the initiative to help our Iraqi friends. EPIC is in the process of compiling a list of resettlement agencies across the country so that you may get involved. If you live in the Arizona region and want to help right now, you can contact Erin Simpson.

Caption: Fawzi al-Khazraji, 42, in his new Tucson home; David Sanders for the Washington Post 11/2007

Monday, November 05, 2007

Seeing Through Blackwater's PR Strategy

Bosom Buddies: L Paul Bremer and Blackwater Guards (AP Photo)As long as we allow private military contractors in Iraq to commit human rights violations with impunity, we are complicit in the reckless endangerment and deaths of innocent civilians. All contractors must be held accountable under law, and every innocent life – American and Iraqi – must be equally protected.

Today’s New York Times editorial Legal Loopholes in Iraq concurs:

It is folly to outsource the tasks of combat to private contractors with no commitment to the nation’s broader goals in Iraq, undermining the already hard job of gaining Iraqis’ trust... That folly was compounded by the decision to allow gun-toting mercenaries to run around Iraq without any clear legal tether holding them accountable to Iraqi law, American criminal law or military law. The killings in Baghdad last September were not the first crimes involving private contractors working for the American government. Still, four years after the start of the war, not one contractor has been prosecuted for crimes committed against an Iraqi. That is no way for a nation to behave if it prides itself on following the rule of law.
Last month, the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight held a hearing on the Blackwater killings. In opening statement, Chairman Henry Waxman offered the following interesting stats: According to Blackwater’s own incident reports, the security firm has been involved in at least 195 ‘escalation of force’ incidents in Iraq since 2005. In 80% of those cases, the company reports that its people fired first. Furthermore, the company acknowledges that (prior to the Sept. 16th incident) it was involved in 16 Iraqi civilian casualties and 162 incidents with property damage, primarily to Iraqi civilian vehicles.

So how did the chief witness at the hearing, Blackwater CEO Erik Prince respond? He simply downplayed the deaths of innocent civilians as “traffic accidents” while emphasizing Blackwater’s record in providing protective services for U.S. diplomats. Sadly, a few lawmakers appeared to know of Blackwater’s public relations strategy in advance, and eagerly played along. Here’s an example, courtesy of Dana Milbank’s play-by-play commentary on the hearing for the Washington Post:

"How many individuals under your protective service have been injured or killed?" asked Patrick McHenry (N.C.).


McHENRY: Zero?

PRINCE: Zero, sir.

McHENRY: Zero individuals that Blackwater's protected have been killed in a Blackwater transport?

PRINCE: That's correct.

McHENRY: Zero?


Yet by far, the biggest disappointment was to see 60 Minutes help Blackwater get its message points out there unchallenged. Fortunately, most lawmakers and Americans aren’t buying it. The more Blackwater CEO Erik Prince and his defenders insist that the only thing that matters is the safe escort of Americans in Iraq, regardless of how many innocent bystanders are killed along the way, the more Americans see the dangers of allowing such contractors to run amuck in Iraq.

Every time Blackwater fails to safeguard Iraqi civilians in the conduct of their “protective services,” they foster an environment that prolongs the war and further endangers Americans. Recognizing this, the U.S. House passed a bill (389 to 30) to make all private security contractors in Iraq and other combat zones subject to prosecution by U.S. courts. Now it is time for the Senate to follow suit.
Clicky Web Analytics